Bright, sunny days seem to be few and far between this summer, so when clear skies showed up one Friday morning in June, we realized it would be an excellent time to visit K'esugi Ken and acted accordingly.
This Alaska State Parks campground and public-use cabin site at Mile 135.4 of the Parks Highway opened to great fanfare in May and has thrilled hundreds of campers looking to spend a few days amid the northern section of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's most spectacular scenery.
Like most families seeking campgrounds that appeal to kids, we needed more than views, jaw-dropping as they were. I wanted space, access and opportunity. And while kids and camping go together like puddles and boots, I'm always appreciative of a campground that provides appealing settings for youngsters to explore.
Quite the view
Situated on a bluff with the Alaska Range and Denali visible to the west and the Talkeetna Mountains to the east, K'esugi Ken is part of a long-term cooperative effort between the borough, the Alaska State Parks system and the National Park Service. It was built, state parks superintendent Wayne Biessel said, "with access to the views and mountains in mind," and we found that seemed to be true as we wound our way around the 33-site RV section of the campground looking for just the right spot to see Denali's towering summit without much effort.
K'esugi Ken is so new the willow and wild rose shrubs planted by construction crews haven't had a chance to fill in the gaps near campsites and trails. But the campground's potential shows in several ways.
Denali State Park is sometimes confused with the national park of the same name, so a stop at the impressive interpretive center and day-use area helps orient visitors. At 325,240 acres, Denali State Park is about a third the size of Rhode Island, and the diversity of its flora and fauna are explained in several artistic panels at the center. In summer, a National Park Service ranger gives presentations about the South Denali area and some of its cultural history, offering visitors perspective on land occupied by Ahtna and Dena'ina Natives for generations.
Park planners carefully orchestrated the layout of the campground to take advantage of the 2 miles of packed gravel trail winding around and through the property, including easy links to the 10 tent sites, public-use cabins, picnic shelters and the interpretive center. For the kids in our group, this meant easy-to-navigate trails that provided just enough independence with clear directions back to our RV.
What we truly appreciated, though, was the absence of artificial noise. Above the Parks Highway, and sheltered by stands of cottonwood and spruce forest, the campground avoids the traffic noise prevalent in so many places between Anchorage and Denali National Park. Adding to this was the fact that all RV sites have electric hookups, eliminating the need for the growling generators that mute all natural sounds. The only thing we heard were calls of thrushes defending their territory, the whisper of wind in the trees, and the laughter of the bands of kids who, like us, were enjoying a glorious summer weekend.
Plenty of options
To say that K'esugi Ken's views are the only reason to stay there would overlook the abundant outdoor recreation in the area. From easy strolls to intense uphill climbs through alpine terrain, the campground connects to it all.
–Biking is limited to the campground's roadways and the packed trails of the area. For kids this means new blacktop, smooth and unmarred by frost heaves or potholes. Bring bikes, scooters, longboards — anything that rolls will do fine. But do insist on helmets, traveling in groups, and give a safety talk about auto and RV traffic that shares the road.
–Hiking at K'esugi Ken can be a morning or evening walk along Moose Flats, a 3/4-mile loop trail that is Americans with Disabilities Act compliant and circles the campground toward an overlook to the west, where Denali looms large on a clear day. Or, take the access trail to Curry Ridge, a 3-mile hike up the newly-cleared route for more views and a link to K'esugi Ridge Trail, the 35-mile "backbone" of the Talkeetna Mountains. We spent an entire day wandering Curry Ridge, taking in the blue sky, views of Denali, and interesting geology of the ridgeline and nearby Lake 1787, accessed via a brushy bushwhack through shrubs and trees but worth it for the clear water and cool breezes.
The Curry Ridge Trail gains elevation from the campground, but switchbacks are long and lazy, and the kids had no trouble, save for bouts of thirst on a day pushing 80 degrees. We made sure to linger at the top, munching peanut butter and honey sandwiches and swatting the occasional fly while looking at a topo map of the sweeping landscape before us.
–Campfire presentations are 8 p.m. daily through Labor Day, according to the ranger who walked around the campground looking for attendees. Topics range from history to wildlife to Alaska Native culture, and kids are encouraged to attend. Meet near the large fireplace at the back of the center. The same ranger also keeps office hours in the Denali Public Use cabin near the campground's host site and group camping area. Here you can grab a map, discover trails and learn a bit more about the South Denali Project of which K'esugi Ken is just one piece.
K'esugi Ken is a first-come, first-served facility that usually fills by Friday evening. I recommend ditching a day of work to arrive early or late, depending upon which end of the weekend you arrive. Tent-only sites are walk-in, a short distance from the parking lot, and have wide, grassy pads for pitching a shelter. RV sites have access to electricity and can accommodate rigs up to 36 feet long. Both have new fire pits and picnic tables.
Until the foliage grows a bit, it is advisable to bring a shelter for sunny or rainy days — there is little cover otherwise. Vault toilets are located every 70 yards or so. RV sites are $30 a night, tent sites $20/night. The three cabins are pretty well booked until October but can be reserved later in the season through Reserve America by calling 907-745-8950.
Tip: Try weekdays. The campground's trails are groomed for skiing in the winter months.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska.